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Nearly $5 million has been sent to independent pharmacies in Illinois who are caught in a financial squeeze of inadequate reimbursements for filling Medicaid prescriptions.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza's office said Tuesday it has sent $4.7 million to more than 70 independent pharmacies under the Critical Access Pharmacy program. The bulk of those pharmacies are located in downstate Illinois.

The $10 million program is intended to help small, independent pharmacies who have faced financial problems under the state's managed care program for Medicaid recipients. Those pharmacies have pointed the finger directly at pharmacy benefit managers hired by the state to administer pharmacy benefits.

Owen Sullivan of Sullivan Drugs said the managers are underpaying pharmacies, particularly independents, for the cost of filling prescriptions. At the same time, he said, managers are paying larger pharmacies much more for filling the same prescription with the same insurance.

"Right now, if we didn't get those (state) funds, we'd be out of business," he said. "We've been around since 1930. They've undercut us to the point we can't survive."

Sullivan Drugs has stores in Litchfield, Carlinville, Gillespie, Hillsboro, Mount Olive, Raymond and Staunton. Several of the company's stores received payments under the plan.

Sullivan said that while he his thankful for the payment, it won't cover his entire loss.

"I basically went last year from being a big loss on the year to being just above even," he said. "It's got me to the point where I can keep my doors open, but I'm not making any money."

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The money is aimed at pharmacies that are in medically underserved areas of the state. Mostly, that means rural areas and predominately downstate. In some instances, there may be only one independent pharmacy serving a town.

"Small rural pharmacies — often the only pharmacies available for miles and miles — are being driven out of business all over Illinois because of unfair competition and state policies," Mendoza said in a statement.

She has called for more transparency and accountability within the state's managed care program.

"I hear from pharmacists in my Senate district and all over the state nearly every day about the financial hardship they face because of unfair competition," added Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, a major proponent of the assistance. "It troubles me to see these small business owners being squeezed out because of state policies they had no control over. Every time a rural pharmacy closes its doors, communities lose access to health care, jobs and economic activity. Establishing this program is the right thing to do."

Garth Reynolds, executive director of the Illinois Pharmacists Association, said the program provides valuable assistance for pharmacies, but the larger issue must still be addressed.

"We have to see a change in how pharmacies are valued by the state, especially through the managed Medicaid program," he said. "We recognize medication costs have gone up over the past number of years. But that is not because of community pharmacies. The pricing manipulations go way higher than the influence that a community pharmacy can have. But the community pharmacy is the one that gets punished."

Reynolds cited a bill awaiting action by Gov. J.B. Pritzker that would give the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services more direct control over pharmacy benefit managers.

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